Family Secrets Can Be Revealing
Few books combine elements of both beguiling mystery, yet deeply personal and effecting memoir. With writer Dani Shapiro’s latest work, all those elements are deftly woven together making for something that is insatiably readable and undeniably relatable. If you’ve never read a memoir or novel by Dani Shapiro, this latest book, “Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love” is a great place to start. It is not only a stellar example of her particular writing prowess and smooth, affable style, it’s also an excellent example of non-fiction that reads like a spell-binding literary novel and a gripping genetic mystery. In 2016, Shapiro’s husband, Michael nonchalantly suggested she take advantage of the fact that he was submitting DNA for heredity analysis, and submit her DNA at the same time. Without much thought, she complied expecting to be bored with the results. What would end up happening, was anything but boring. In fact the life altering results would upend her very existence as articulated by Shapiro in the book’s first chapter. She doesn’t bury the lead, she doesn’t worry about spoiler or if others do as well in discussing her story. She puts it out front and center because in “Inheritance” it’s about the journey; it’s about feeling what she feels when discovering that she’s not her father’s daughter, genetically speaking, and the deep rooted Jewish traditions that informed her world, are not actually part of her DNA.
Now it is early morning and I’m in a small hotel bathroom though three thousand miles from home. I’m fifty-four years old, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been that girl. But here I am again, staring and staring at my reflection. A stranger stares back at me… The facts: I’m a woman, a wife, a mother, a writer, a teacher. I’m a daughter. I blink. The stranger in the mirror blinks too. A daughter. Over at the course of a single day and night, the familiar has vanished… On the other side of the thin wall I hear my husband crack open a newspaper. The floor seems to sway. Or perhaps it’s my body trembling. I don’t know what a nervous breakdown would feel like, but I wonder if I’m having one.
When Shapiro realizes she is not her father’s biological daughter, she questions everything and every family member. This is compounded by the fact that both her parents are no longer alive to mine for family facts. She suspects who her parents were and what their motives were. Their truth, and her own identity.It is challenging for her to not jump to conclusions or pass judgement. Was she adopted? Did her mother have an affair, or was Shapiro one of the first of the “test tube babies” experiments? These and many more questions are explored by Shapiro and you the reader right along side her. As her personal investigation ensues, she somewhat easily narrows down leads to her biological father. Contacting him and launching communication would turn out to only be half the battle. As understandably hard it is for Shapiro to come to grips with her new reality, it is equally difficult for her living 78-year-old biological father to face up decisions from his past and to trust the motives of someone he never really knew existed.
Although in a brief assessment of “Inheritance,” and at just under 250 pages, one might get the impression it’s a long infomercial for ancestry.com, thankfully you’d be wrong. For while her unexpected trail down a genealogy rabbit hole could convert the most DNA analysis skeptic to take the plunge or at least start watching Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Inheritance is so much more as the subtitle suggests. It’s a gripping mystery and a profound morality tale of one woman’s search for her family’s history, their truth, and her own identity.